Friday, July 10, 2009

Lemmings maligned

This interesting little skull was in the weird news yesterday. It is the 10,000-year-old skull of a lemming and led scientists to believe they had germinated the oldest viable seeds ever found, but carbon-dating of the remaining seeds from its burrow has debunked the idea - the seeds are a mere 50 years old and must have fallen into the ice tunnels when they were exposed during mining. Knowing that lemmings have a mistaken reputation for throwing themselves en masse off of cliffs, I decided to debunk that notion also. As it turns out, that is not the only misconception these solitary and subniveal creatures have been subject to. In the 16th c., it was theorized that lemmings generated spontaneously, falling from they sky in stormy weather. Natural historian Ole Worm* (1588-1655) was the first to dissect a lemming and correct the idea of their origin, but still believed that they were carried by the wind. It wasn't until the 18th c. that Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) showed that lemmings breed naturally. Like other rodents, they have a high reproductive rate, and when population levels get too great they migrate in large groups. When they reach a body of water, they are moved by this biological urge to jump in and swim, sometimes dying of exhaustion in the process. They may also be pushed off a cliff as the group behind them surges forward. But the idea that they willfully throw themselves to their deaths is a myth - popularized by none other than a 1955 comic based on a National Geographic photo and a 1958 Disney film - and now a metaphor.
*Don't you just love that name?!

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